It wasn’t that long ago you’d go to the Near Southside only for a doctor’s appointment or a chicken-fried steak from Massey’s. These days Mad-Nolia is home to the city’s best assemblage of restaurants, and the hits just keep coming. It seems like a new place opens every month in that neck of the ’hood. But with more competition come greater expectations. If you’re opening a place alongside the big boys, you’d better bring your A-game.
When the Thanpaisarnsamut family, part owners of Thai Select (4630 SW Loop 820) and Thailicious (4601 W. Fwy., Ste. 206), announced they’d be opening the more upscale Spice Thai Kitchen and Bar (411 W. Magnolia Ave.), I wondered if the restaurateurs were ready for prime time. The menus of their two previous places aren’t that ambitious. Both are great but offer fairly straightforward plates relying on fresh ingredients and perfect execution. If my recent visit to Spice was any indication, my fears may have been justified. The place failed to deliver in any phase of my experience.
The Thai eatery has been open less than a month on the still-pioneering section of Magnolia east of Hemphill Street. I would usually give a new place at least a month to straighten things out before going to review it, but I figured since the owners have so much restaurant experience, surely their food quality and polished service would already indicate a firm hand on the wheel. I saw no such sign.
There was no host stand nor anyone to greet my three guests and me when we walked in. We just stood there for a while, watching harried staffers pass by. After waiting a few minutes, I flagged down a staff member, who pointed to an open table. Then we sat. And sat. After I walked over to the service station to ask for a server, our visibly annoyed waiter came over and asked, “Are you ready?” I could have forgiven the restaurant for our 20 minutes of apparent invisibility if our server hadn’t acted like we were bothering him.
The place is BYOB, so we brought some wine. I had to flag down another server to get a corkscrew. He handed it to me along with some glasses and walked away.
The food didn’t inspire confidence either. We started with the pot stickers ($7), stuffed with pork, cabbage, and onion and accompanied by a soy-based sauce. The dumplings come steamed or fried. We ordered them steamed, and they came fried. They tasted almost exactly like the bland, crispy spring rolls ($7). The unsalted edamame ($5) tasted like bath water and were so pasty and overcooked I could have used them as caulk.
The vast menu included some interesting-looking dishes. Among the pages of basic fare, one section offers authentic, exotic-sounding elevated Thai. The problem was in the execution. I’ve never had a dining experience where the issues with each dish were so radically different.
I went for the beautifully presented duck kra prow ($19), with roasted duck, basil, jalapeños, and red bell peppers. All I could taste was salt and the occasional sear of fresh jalapeños. I ordered steamed white rice with the dish, and it came with flavorless, mushy brown rice. The pad cha talay ($15) was all heat. The combination seafood entrée with dried green curry paste sounded like a winner, but I couldn’t taste anything beyond the ubiquitous flecks of red pepper. In a confusing twist, the pad ginger ($13) with rubbery, overcooked calamari, had no seasoning and very little flavor to speak of. The only time the kitchen shone was on the very basic pad Thai with tofu ($11).
Maybe in time Spice will round into form. But with so many A-list restaurants nearby, that time may be short.
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